Bush Announces Iraq Exit Strategy

Via Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

Onion_news3141_article“I’m pleased to announce that the Department of Defense and I have formulated a plan for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq,” Bush announced Monday morning. “We’ll just go through Iran.”

Bush said the U.S. Army, which deposed Iran’s longtime enemy Saddam Hussein, should be welcomed with open arms by the Islamic-fundamentalist state.

“And Iran’s so nearby,” Bush said. “It’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to the east.”

More here, from The Onion.

On Israel, America and AIPAC

George Soros in the New York Review of Books:

SorosThe Bush administration is once again in the process of committing a major policy blunder in the Middle East, one that is liable to have disastrous consequences and is not receiving the attention it should. This time it concerns the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The Bush administration is actively supporting the Israeli government in its refusal to recognize a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, which the US State Department considers a terrorist organization. This precludes any progress toward a peace settlement at a time when progress on the Palestinian problem could help avert a conflagration in the greater Middle East.

The United States and Israel seek to deal only with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in the hope that new elections would deny Hamas the majority it now has in the Palestinian Legislative Council. This is a hopeless strategy because Hamas has said it would boycott early elections, and even if their outcome would result in Hamas’s exclusion from the government, no peace agreement would hold without Hamas’s support.

More here.

How Doctors Think

In New York magazine, Sam Anderson reviews How Doctors Think. (To be confirmed or refuted by all the physicians on 3QD.)

These days, for every appointment with an actual doctor, the average person probably undergoes 300 virtual appointments—via ER, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and self-diagnostic sites like WebMD. This, oddly, makes real live doctors, these humans with bad breath and imperfect hair who poke us in places we wish they wouldn’t and issue boring diagnoses, some of the last remaining medical novelties.

Now, partly in an effort to bring this unfamiliar beast to light, and cure the pandemic of our doctor obsession, Jerome Groopman has published a bit of cognitive ethnography called How Doctors Think. (Among its many merits, the book suggests a promising new subgenre: Imagine the pleasures of How Supreme Court Justices Think, How CEOs Think, How Plumbers Think.) Groopman is qualified for this job both professionally—he teaches at Harvard Medical School and writes for The New Yorker—and, more important, temperamentally: He is sane, adult, and almost superhumanly conscientious. He claims to remember every misdiagnosis from his 30-year career and takes a moment in an author’s note to reassure us that “ ‘Doctors A, B, C, D, and E’ are fictitious names.” The book is a mixture of methodological theorizing, personal history (Groopman, with his endearingly gimpy wrist and painfully fused spine, has suffered much at the hands of his colleagues), and entertaining stories of misdiagnoses and miraculous saves. There is fascinating insider trivia: Doctors begin assessing your health the moment they see you in the waiting room; they tend to interrupt patients within twelve seconds and arrive at a working diagnosis within twenty; they dislike sick people; and (according to one admirably blunt source) the real mission of an ER is “to establish to our comfort, and the patient’s comfort, that what is bothering them is not going to kill them in the next three days.”

[H/t Maeve Adams.]

Zafar the ditherer

From The Guardian:

Thelastmughal_2 Dalrymple has here written an account of the Indian mutiny such as we have never had before, of the events leading up to it and of its aftermath, seen through the prism of the last emperor’s life. He has vividly described the street life of the Mughal capital in the days before the catastrophe happened, he has put his finger deftly on every crucial point in the story, which earlier historians have sometimes missed, and he has supplied some of the most informative footnotes I have ever read. On top of that, he has splendidly conveyed the sheer joy of researching a piece of history, something every true historian knows, telling of his elation at discovering in Burma’s national archives all Zafar’s prison records, stored in Acrobat PDF files – “something the British Library has so far failed to achieve”.

More here.

Seeking the Connections: Alcoholism and Our Genes

From Scientific American:Alcohol

The tendency to become dependent on alcohol has long been known to run in families, which for some only added to the social stigma attached to this complicated condition. Decades ago researchers began investigating the widely observed tendency of persons from Chinese, Japanese or other East Asian backgrounds to become “flushed” when they drank an alcoholic beverage. Blood tests on subjects displaying this effect showed increased levels of acetaldehyde, a breakdown product of alcohol, which resulted in an uncomfortable sensation of warmth in the skin, palpitations and weakness. By the 1980s investigators traced the reaction to an enzyme involved in alcohol metabolism, aldehyde dehydrogenase, and eventually to the gene that encodes it, ALDH1.

This ALDH1 gene variant has since been found to be common in Asian populations–seen in 44 percent of Japanese, 53 percent of Vietnamese, 27 percent of Koreans and 30 percent of Chinese (including 45 percent of Han Chinese)–yet it is rare in people of European descent. As might be expected, people with this slow-metabolizing gene variant also have a decreased risk, by up to sixfold, for alcoholism, so it is an example of a genetic variation that can protect against developing the disorder.

More here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

starchitects reign supreme


Modernist architects, who reigned from the middle of the 20th century into the 1970s, roughly, created no shortage of stirring buildings. But their attempts to rewrite the rules of the modern city were about as successful as the Hindenburg, with which modernism shared German roots.

The nadir — and architects are really sick of this story by now — was the attempt by American cities to remake slums according to the principles of such leading modernists as Le Corbusier: Crisp high-rise housing projects sprouting out of green yards announced a new era in America’s treatment of its poor. Yet by the late ’60s these buildings were widely seen as disasters — hyperconcentrated loci of crime and despair– and in 1972, when St. Louis dynamited its massive Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki (the World Trade Center was also his), some modernist dreams imploded, too.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

On the Biological Origins of Morality

In the NYT:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.

The original call to battle was sounded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson more than 30 years ago, when he suggested in his 1975 book “Sociobiology” that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” He may have jumped the gun about the time having come, but in the intervening decades biologists have made considerable progress.

Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

Espionage’s Coming of Age in the Spanish Civil War

In El Pais, a story of how the Spanish Civil War became a training ground for the spies of the Cold War.

When, in 1937, The Times of London published an interview with General Francisco Franco, those in the know will have had a hearty chuckle. For the man standing next to the caudillo was a Soviet spy.

The article was reprinted in Spanish newspaper ABC several days later. At the time, Franco was the man spearheading the war against the Republic. The man in the picture next to him, who is looking at Franco with an intense look of concentration on his face as he points at a map, was supposedly a journalist. The photo shows him to be an impeccably dressed man in his thirties. He is thin, with dark eyes, sharp features and combed back hair. Protruding from his top jacket pocket is a handkerchief, coquettishly arranged, giving him a dandyish appearance that was to the liking of the Burgos authorities—for it added a touch of respectability to the fact that an Englishman was taking such an interest in the future dictator and his opinions.

The hilarity the photo caused the spy’s bosses must have been even greater when they found out that Franco had seen fit to award him with a military cross of merit. Franco’s heads of press liked his balanced, well-written chronicles, which were somewhat favorable to the fascist cause.

The reporter’s name was Harold Adrian Russell Philby, although his friends preferred to call him Kim.

Darfur, The State of Things

Gérard Prunier in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Why is the international response so weak? The US position is ambiguous. Beneath the firm entreaties is a mixture of tricks, double talk and impotence. Since 11 September 2001 Washington has considered that Khartoum has earned a good behaviour ticket in the fight against terrorism. The Sudanese secret services have a good cop, bad cop routine in which Nafi Ali Nafi, former interior minister and adviser to Bashir, plays the bad cop, while his deputy, Salah Abdallah “Gosh”, plays the good guy. Ali Nafi is denounced as an extremist while Gosh (one of the main authors of repression in Darfur) is invited to discussions with the CIA and considered an ally in the war against terror.

The practical results of this compromising collaboration have yet to be seen. Washington’s official declarations remain firm but are not followed up by concrete measures even when encouraged by President George Bush’s own political allies. California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed a law obliging California public bodies to sell any shares in US or foreign companies working in Sudan. This disinvestment policy, which enabled human rights activists to force the Canadian oil company Talisman Energy to withdraw from Sudan in 2003, was not supported by the White House. The first victim of US double-dealing was Bush’s own special envoy, Andrew Natsios, former director of the US Agency for International Development. When he ran out of resources he threatened Bush with a mysterious plan B if plan A, which was UN deployment, failed. When pressed by journalists, Natsios was unable to provide any details about plan B.

How to Write a Novel

Amitava Kumar in The Hindu:

I BEGAN writing my novel Home Products in the summer of 2003, a few weeks before my wife gave birth to our first child.

But even before I began work on the book I bought a black hardcover sketchbook. In its pages, I started writing down whatever I liked in what I happened to be reading. Among the earliest journal entries is the opening line of a review that had appeared, in the New York Times, of the film “The Hours”. This was also the opening line of a novel by Virginia Woolf. I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

There are no notes around that neatly cut out quote but I can imagine why it had appealed to a first-time novelist. You read Woolf’s line and are suddenly aware of the brisk entry into a fully-formed world. No fussing around with irrelevant detail and back-story. And I began to write various opening lines.

In my mind there was an image of a man sitting in a room in a prison near Patna. When he gets out, he would like to make a film. But nothing I wrote promised a swift entry into a fictional world that already existed, and I went over the same lines for at least a fortnight without any success.

Copy Editing as Politics and As Propaganda

Erik Stostad in ScienceNOW:

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today released documents edited by political appointees in the Bush Administration that “appear to portray a systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change,” according to committee staff. Current and former appointees who made the changes appeared today before the panel and testified that they were trying to introduce scientific uncertainty in the reports.

The hearing followed one in January by the committee on whether the White House had politicized climate science (ScienceNOW, 30 January). Last year, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), who chairs the committee, had requested that the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) turn over documents related to reports on climate science and policy. At the first hearing, Waxman complained that his staff had received only a handful of documents. Last month, CEQ agreed to release more documents and has provided eight boxes’ worth to the committee.

In today’s nearly 5-hour questioning of witnesses, Waxman and other representatives focused on changes made to drafts of three documents. Beginning in 2001, CEQ officials suggested 113 edits to the Administration’s draft Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program that Waxman says played down the role of human activities in global warming. Another 181 changes either exaggerated or emphasized scientific uncertainties, such as changing “will” to “may” in the draft sentence “Warming temperatures will also affect Arctic land areas.”

The Latest in the Debate on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Halleh Ghorashi in signandsight:

I first saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2002, when she appeared in a discussion on Dutch television. At that time I saw a strong woman who fought for her ideas: someone who dared to distance herself from her traditional Islamic background and in so doing, positioned herself against the traditional Islamic community in the Netherlands. Her arguments on the incompatibility of Islamic belief and women’s emancipation were sharp.

I found Hirsi Ali’s approach to the emancipation of Islamic women attractive and identified with her for different reasons. Firstly because 18 years ago I left my homeland Iran as a refugee from an Islamic regime, whose suppression in the name of Islam I had experienced both because of my political background (as a leftist) and because of my gender. Secondly, I was also greatly concerned with the emancipation of women, particularly of women who share my own background: women from Islamic countries.

However, my identification with Ayaan did not last long. Someone I initially considered a pioneer for the emancipation of Islamic women turned out to hold dogmatic views that left little room for nuances. I soon realized that Ayaan had become part of the dominant “rightist” discourse on Islam in the Netherlands that pictures Islamic migrants as problems and enemies of the nation. Then I realized that our roads had diverged. But before pursuing my discussion, let me put it in context.

Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007

In the Economist:

AT SOME point in his career—neither date nor time being important—Jean Baudrillard took a large red cloth, draped it over a chair in his apartment, and sat on it. He may have smoked or thought for a while, or scratched his nose; a large, doughlike nose, supporting glasses. He then got up, leaving an impression of his body behind. The image pleased him: so much so, that he took a photograph.

Since he made no comment on the event (beyond the fact that the chair was later broken), the exact details are conjectural. But by putting the cloth on the chair, and sitting on it, Mr Baudrillard added to the plethora of signs, objects and symbolic acts that made up, in his philosophical system, the whole woof and warp of the 20th century. By getting up, he left behind a “simulacrum” of himself: the truth, as he teasingly put it, that hid the fact that there was no truth there. And by photographing the chair he made it “hyperreal”: an image, which could be reproduced unendingly, of an object that claimed to have meaning and, in fact, had none.

Then he went to lunch.

One bird species learns another’s lingo

From MSNBC:Bird

Nuthatches appear to have learned to understand a foreign language — chickadee. It’s not unusual for one animal to react to the alarm call of another, but nuthatches seem to go beyond that — interpreting the type of alarm and what sort of predator poses a threat. When a chickadee sees a predator, it issues warning call — a soft “seet” for a flying hawk, owl or falcon, or a loud “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” for a perched predator.

The “chick-a-dee” call can have 10 to 15 “dees” at the end and varies in sound to encode information on the type of predator. It also calls in other small birds to mob the predator, Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington said in a telephone interview. “In this case the nuthatch is able to discriminate the information in this call,” said Templeton, a doctoral candidate.

More here.

Journey to the 248th dimension

From Nature:

Math A map of one of the strangest and most complex entities in mathematics should be a powerful new tool for both mathematicians and physicists pursuing a unified theory of space, time and matter. The strange ‘thing’ that has been mapped is a ‘Lie group’ called E8 — a set of maths that describes the symmetry of an (unimaginable to most) 57-dimensional object.

The creation of this map, which took 77 hours on a supercomputer, resulted in a matrix of 453,060 ? 453,060 cells, containing more than 205 billion entries — “all related in intricate and complex ways”, says Jeffrey Adams, the project leader and a mathematician at the University of Maryland. This represents 60 gigabytes of data, enough data to store 45 days of MP3 music files, or fill a piece of paper the size of Manhattan (about 60 square kilometres). The human genome takes up 1 gigabyte.

The finished product is essentially a database of information, which should come in very handy to theoretical physicists tackling grand unified theories of everything. “Now that it’s done, mathematicians and physicists can use the results very easily,” says Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick, UK. Adams agrees: “It’s going to be a fabulous tool.”

More here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dispatches: L.A., Red-Eyed Observations

One thing is clear: Los Angeles is much more interesting than New York, visually.  This is because it conceals more.  In New York the streets are the city, each facade only hiding an array of more-or-less identical, apartmental shoeboxes of space; the triangular Flatiron building on Twenty-Third Street counts as a major departure from the typical.  In L.A., there is a much greater variety of places: not only rectangular blocks, but plazas, gardens, diagonal intersections, parking lots, beachfront estates, strip malls, green lawns, absurdist signage, hills, winding drives, and houses of every conceivable style and shape.  As well, so many private domains can only be glimpsed from the street: not only the movie studios, with their shopping-mall opulence behind abode walls, but even the average U-shaped apartment complexes, which always  include an interior, vine-shaded courtyard only accessible to residents. 

Isn’t it fatuous, you’re asking, to compare the two cities as though generalizations about each can be made from a few limited observations?  Of course.  Let’s get started.  In Los Angeles, the infinity of kinds of spaces constantly makes for sudden, unexpected vistas.  David Lynch has expressed this aspect of the city much more eloquently than I can, with the dark, enigmatic corner in Bill Pullman’s house in Lost Highway that seems to open into a void, or the frightening space around the back of the diner in Mulholland Drive.  The irregularity of L.A. causes this exhilarating anxiety: you literally don’t know what’s around the corner, or what’s inside that gate.  In New York, there’s no imaginative mystery at all to the physical world: everyone lives in an apartment, only cohabiting couples have a spare room, and ten million guidebooks chronicle every square mile of ground-level space.  Hence, in New York, “secret” bars and restaurants (from Lansky Lounge to Milk and Honey to Freeman’s) proliferate, while in L.A. figuring out what is where is difficult enough without intentional concealment. 

Much of the unknowability of Los Angeles starts with its being so spread out.  As a friend philosophically observed, the entire difference between the two cities stems from one being horizontal and the other vertical.  This kind of irrefutable contrast is what makes comparing the U.S.’s two largest cities irresistible.  Horizontal and vertical, slow and fast, early and late, wide and deep–we might as well go whole hog and make a structuralist comparison a la Saussure and Jakobson: Los Angeles is a metonym, where meanings are arranged next to each other, New York is a metaphor, where meanings are stacked and substituted for each other.  Los Angeles is synchronic, about the arrangement of objects in space in the present, New York is diachronic, about the way the same small space changes over time.  Etc.

Maybe a simpler (and simple is better, and very L.A.) way to express this is to compare the cities’  typography.  In L.A., uninhibited by the past, the vogue is for a bold, beautiful, sans serif typeface.  Check out this restaurant‘s menus (which is excellent, by the way) or the aforementioned director’s coffee-selling website for examples.  These typefaces bespeak a commitment to modernism, a desire to invent anew, a lack of anxiety about leaving behind what’s outmoded and traditional.  What could be more opposite than the Jurassic, faux-medieval typeface of the New York Times?  New York scenesters often cultivate an anachronistic aesthetic, compleat (sic) with beard and suspenders – their blogs always use serif fonts.  In L.A., with its lack of comparable history, new vocabularies displace the old, new forms of yoga and therapy console its citizens, new big-box retailers brashly replace yesterday’s disposable strip malls, the casual is preferred to the formal.  New is good, new works.

In keeping with this attitude, a widespread addiction to youth seems is evident everywhere in the culture.  Living with your parents is no mark of shame; it’s a sensible, workable arrangement until you hit it big.  (Can you imagine telling someone you lived with your parents in New York?)  Adulthood is to be resisted, the self-absorbed dream of youth (or at least its cosmetic facsimile) pursued.  When you’re there, it’s somehow hard to remember that there are other people, even other social classes.  As my sister puts it, you’re stoned by the weather.  And yet, at the same time, there is a much greater diversity of people to be seen on the streets of Los Angeles.  Perhaps because the necessities of life (housing, food) are more cheaply obtained, the range of wealth and ethnicity and age of people you see in L.A. puts New York to shame.  Its visual economy may value the cultivation of the body over that of the mind, but in its way it is a much less pretentious, more frank, and yes, more gritty city than the fauxhemian paradise that modern New York has become.  It’s not that it disavows its traditional culture, however; it’s that it has no settled culture, at least of any longevity.

Beautiful, casual, young, stoned by the sun: am I just reciting a litany of cliches about Los Angeles?  What next, an assertion of how bad the traffic is?  Well, sometimes a city performs as advertised.  The impossibly tall, slender palm trees of Santa Monica; the bookstores devoted to auras and chakras; the tennis-playing lotharios drinking mineral water at bars with skateboarders and stylists; bronzed limbs and smoggy sunsets; maitre’d’s who greet you with “What’s up?”; the presence of Richard Gere; and, yup, infuriating traffic jams that break out at random; these all really exist, to the wonder of a New York-based correspondent.  At the Getty Center, above their surreal and gorgeous landscape garden, there is a certain outdoor walkway overlooking the city.  As you approach its end, there is a low stone wall beyond which you can see nothing but a nebulous, blue haze.  It goes on forever, it’s impossibly beautiful, and it gives you vertigo.

The rest of Dispatches.

Lunar Refractions: Lessing’s Limits

Maynelessing1959 I’ve not been reading much about art lately, as I often find reading/analyzing and doing fairly incompatible acts when attempted simultaneously, but I have just read an old essay that turned out to be unexpectedly timely. Published in German in 1766, and first translated into English in 1853, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerie und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) is a delightful rumination on the limits of two sister arts. He ultimately ends up praising these limits, which is why I find the work so timely, now that we’re in an age that seems to let any medium try to become any other. A few months ago I’d first tried to get through a remarkably inelegant, almost incomprehensible EnglSnowdonlessing1992ish translation of it that appeared in 1898, and gave up—it was atrociously faithful to the German, to the point of becoming an absurdist text in English, curious but insufferable. The McCormick translation published in 1962, on the other hand, is a gem. In the spirit of Herr Lessing I’ll digress for a brief moment only to note that, no, Gotthold isn’t any direct relation of our contemporary writer Doris; for several years—after reading her Golden Notebook and long before reading anything of his—I’d thought (or wanted to think) that was true. In terms of lucidity and sharp critical thought I’d claim that they are related, but that’s the extent of it. Those who feel deceived by my title are welcome to quit here.

Laocoonmuseivaticani_2But back to the essay: his exploration of the respective limits of painting and poetry is, to a certain degree, a response to the Horatian simile ut pictura poesis (as painting, so poetry) and a potential misinterpretation of it. While Lessing’s work as a translator is clear in his analysis of language, his later point that a work’s poetry may well lie in concision is exposed by this first reaction to the (likely unintended) assertion that poetry should be as painting is.
    Opening with a comparison of how poetry and painting affect amateur, philosopher, and critic, he seeks to establish a balance between the two types of art. The amateur equates the two—both proffer absent things as present and appearance as reality, and both create a pleasant illusion. The philosopher looks instead at the nature of the produced pleasure, and names the source as beauty, with its subsequent rules applicable not only to artistic form, but also to thought and action. Finally, the critic takes these general rules and examines their application in various art forms with differing and often complimentary roles.
    Mentioning in passing Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” it becomes clear that Lessing will continue his predecessor’s preference for classical antiquity. Noting that a still, deep soul can be expressed even in its moments of stirred passion, he claims that, contrary to modern German (or European) traits, the ancient Greeks held up the paradigm of artist and philosopher as one, and condoned the depiction of beautiful bodies to the exclusion of any other sort. The end purpose is the highest goal: of knowledge, it’s truth; of art, it’s pleasure. The reciprocal nature of what we might term “artistic culture” is outlined here: good (beautiful) men produce good (beautiful) work, and vice versa. Beauty is the supreme law of both visual and poetic arts. The expression of passions, and degrees thereof, is circumscribed by certain limitations; the depiction of unpleasant or upsetting passions should be limited, or at least portrayed with some beauty. In the Laocoön, the pain was too great to be shown with beauty, so it was tempered, hence the discomfort inspired by the pain is transformed, through beauty, into pity. Beauty is transformative.

Braqueguggenheimpianoetmandole1910 Lessing’s observation that his times have expanded (or even abolished) the classical limits placed on art, and beauty is but a small part of art’s newer priority of depicting nature in all its sorts, carries echoes of Caravaggio et al. and the scandalous idea of working directly from nature, which was so highly criticized at the time. Art’s aim at truth and expression places beauty below these primary goals, and they in turn transform even the ugliest bits of nature into what Lessing Romantically terms “artistic beauty.” Despite this, artists must nevertheless restrain their depictions, and never show an action at climax. Here he addresses the key difference between painting and poetry, or visual versus verbal arts. Painting carries with it material limitations and the ability to show only a single moment of time from a single vantage point (cubism, anyone? Might Braque have been egged on by this essay?). Additionally, the most “fruitful” or effective point of view is the one that is well thought out for long-term contemplation and leaves the imagination free. Needing to choose one moment of an ongoing action, that action’s culmination is generally the least suitable, weakest moment from which to imply the whole in painting or sculpture, as it limits the imagination by showing the most extreme point, forcing the mind and eye to focus on the lesser aspects. Permanence comes into play here—the chosen single moment depicted, although it should hint at the rest of the action, mustn’t have anything fleeting about it. Returning to impassioned art, Lessing cites the lCaravaggiogiuditta_2ate Byzantine painter Timomachus, whose work is known through the writings of Pliny the Elder, as an artist paramount for his ability to combine two major things in his work: the precise moment that most fires the viewer’s imagination, as opposed to exposing all to the viewer’s eye, and a visual approach to the passing moment that keeps its pleasantness even when captured forever, perpetuated as a frozen object in art. Lessing discusses Timomachus’s superiority over another, unknown painter; the former depicted the murderous Medea before she commits infanticide, whereas the latter shows her in the act; what might he have had to say about Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes?

Lessing goes on to consider whether or not both painters and poets enjoyed real freedom in their work, or if it was constrained by external dictates like religion (that word freedom does warrant a digression about autonomy and heteronomy, which I don’t dare go into here). Whereas pleasure is the ultimate goal of the work of art, religious demands and superstitions often confined the artist. Lessing opts for unfettered art as thePasolinicallasmedea true art above those done for religious aims, which focus more on meaning than on the pure depiction of beauty. And conceptual art? Though perhaps a loss for us, yet luckily for him, he wasn’t around to have witnessed the past sixty-odd years. His mention of artists who “create for art’s sake” is dubiously credited in a note from the translator as “possibly the first use of the expression ‘art for art’s sake.’” I’m not so sure about that, but it would be radical.
    Citing a statement by the British writer Joseph Spence marveling at poets’ brevity in describing the muses—goddesses to which, after all, poets owe their very art—Lessing in turn critiques Spence’s seeming obtuseness in not recognizing that the name and function of a character, expressed in poetry with words, serve the same purpose as the visual attributes, in lieu of words, with which a painter is forced to depict a character. Here Lessing is simply pointing out that it would be redundant, not to mention a betrayal of each art’s respective strengths, for poetry to describe a character as she would be visually depicted in painting. While I don’t quite follow his differentiation between the “allegorical beings” of painting and the “personified abstractions” of poetry, as it seems to me that these are the same things merely expressed in different media, his point is quite clear: poets can concisely use words, painters must rely on visual clues. Neither should worry about mimicking the other art, and both should focus on the strengths of their own means of communication. He returns to this later when discussing his surprise at seeing a painter use the poet’s device of cloaking something in a cloud when it is meant to be invisible to the other characters in a scene. Just as it would be silly for poets to adopt verbal descriptions of things as seen in painting, it’s equally absurd that a painter would adopt so literally the poet’s device of rendering things invisible with a shroud of fog or darkness, something quite effective when described in words, yet odd when converted into paint.
    These limitations—painting’s need to visually depict, poetry’s need to signify in words—determine the very nature of each art. Continuing to take examples from classical antiquity, he imagines how a painter could go about showing Minerva as stronger than several men combined. In Homer’s Iliad she is described as such, and the listener’s or reader’s mind conjures this up in the imagination, whereas a painter, forced to depict her visually, inevitably loses that advantage. In choosing to show her several times larger than a man and hence convey her strength through size, the “marvelous” disappears and is replaced by an improbable and ineffective rendition that seeks to engage the eye rather than the imagination. Here Lessing returns to the cloud comments I noted earlier, pointing to such a device as “not what the poet intended. It exceeds the limits of painting…” by becoming a hieroglyphic symbol, a visible key to make us read something as invisible, and therefore one step removed from the poet’s direct statement of something’s invisibility.
    He then returns once again to an earlier passage and reiterates that where poetry can describe an event unfolding in time, painting can only suggest an event’s course by choosing a specific moment and portraying actions through bodies and their implied movement. Painting is limited to the “single moment of an action,” and poetry is limited to “one single property of a body.” Each much choose the most effective moment and property, respectively, to communicate its story. The essential rule, clarified in Homer’s epics, is that “harmony in descriptive adjectives and economy in description of physical objects” are necessities. Lessing elaborates this idea of harmony in adjectives later on, and for the moment moves on to the potential objections that could be raised against this rule. Poetry’s symbols may be successive, but they are also arbitrary, and as such should be able to depict bodies in space—like the shield of Achilles, for example. This is dismissed by agreeing that the “symbols of speech” are indeed arbitrary, but that this applies to speech in general, not poetry specifically. Essentially, it’s a question of style; yes, language doesn’t prevent a poet from describing everything, including space as a succession of bodies and actions, but the artistic demands of poetry (i.e., to make things strongly felt, as opposed to just understood or dryly conveyed) make it impossible. We need to be rapt at the “moment of illusion,” rather than distracted by how the poet created the illusion through words.

Masacciobrancacci Lessing digresses for a moment to indulge the idea that even Homer succumbed to a dry laundry-list approach in his descriptions from time to time, casting doubt on his clear-cut line dividing painting and poetry, but he follows it with the clearest summary of his thesis—namely, that the poet reigns over the succession of time just as the painter reigns over the succession of space. Poetry is a verbal, temporal art, pain ting a visual, spatial art. For the two to encroach on one another’s realms is sheer bad taste. He uses the analogy of two frienMuybridgedescenddly neighbors who have a mutual respect for each other’s terrain and maintain a tolerance for any eventual transgressions. Here Lessing is quite indulgent, pardoning artists like Raphael who combine two moments into one as evidenced in a curious fold of drapery, and sees this error as minor, committed in the name of capturing more prefect expression. I wonder what he’d have to say about Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel scenes, wherein Saint Peter is shown in quaint continuous narrative, foreshadowing Muybridge’s startlingly non-static stills….

Forebearance is Lessing’s main mood here: forgive the painter who occasionally shows more than one moment at once, pardon the poet who occasionally uses more words then the strict minimum. His earlier mention of harmony in the use of adjectives returns here, as he dispenses pardons specifically for those extra words that a poet can use according to the lucky structure of his language. Comparing Greek, German, and French, he points out that what Homer could get away with in describing the shield of Achilles, its forging and figurative details, cannot be excused in its less scintillating translations into German and French, which “give the meaning but destroy the picture.” This is made slightly more complex with the addition of the temporal aspect: Homer chooses to describe the shield not as it exists when complete, but rather as it’s being made. The details that are statically coexistent on the final armor, described as they’re being formed, become consecutive in time. Hence Homer perfectly adapts this description to the strength—time, not space—of poetry; a painter would have to approach it quite differently, emphasizing space rather than time.
    Lessing concludes with a reaffirmation of limits’ benefits for each art. By not allowing poetry to use infinite descriptions, poets are forced to focus on the effect their words have on listeners and readers. While Homer doesn’t go into vivid description of Helen’s beauty, he makes her beauty clear through the circumstances and surrounding events, with a jury of elders deeming it worthy of the wretched war they’d endured. By verbally conveying the results of beauty, poets “paint” the beauty itself. The confining lines Lessing has worked to establish between painting and poetry are blurred by his choice of words here, bringing us back to the present. How he pulled this off 241 years ago I can’t begin to imagine.

So, admit it: if you’ve read this far, or if you even read past the first paragraph, you’ve also read Lessing’s essay, along with Greenberg’s and everyone else’s additions, and likely know a lot more about all this than I do, which confirms my suspicion that I’m probably one of the last people to get round to this piece. My interest in current visual works blending theater and more static visual arts aside, anyone working in poetry, painting, sculpture, video, or anything else would likely enjoy having a look at Lessing’s little essay. I won’t pretend to have any new insights about it—what is most striking is that such a potentially old, musty musing about such old, musty arts and ideas can remain so pertinent today.

Previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.

Miracle Mice

MrlmiceAlthough I swiped my title from the media coverage of this story:

SCIENTISTS have created “miracle mice” that can regenerate amputated limbs or damaged vital organs, making them able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals.

The experimental animals are unique among mammals in their ability to regrow their heart, toes, joints and tail.

And when [fetal liver] cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate […]

there are a number of important caveats missing from the “miracle mouse!” version.  (Whenever you hear “miracle”, especially in science, think of David Hume).  Nonetheless, I do think this research marks the point at which regenerative human medicine becomes not just possible but entirely probable.  The article to read is The scarless heart and the MRL mouse by Ellen Heber-Katz (who runs the lab responsible for most of these discoveries) et al., and a good primer on regeneration, including non-mammalian models, is Andrea Rinaldi’s The Newt in Us.

The mouse strain in question is an inbred strain called MRL, and has been around since 1979. It was originally selected for large size and has a lymphocyte (white blood cell) proliferative disorder which gives rise to a variety of immune problems, including autoimmune symptoms. For instance, the MRL mouse is a common model for systemic lupus erythematosus.  The regenerative abilities of this mouse were discovered by researchers marking mice by punching small holes in their ears; within 30 days, the MRL mice healed the ear holes closed whereas other mice retain the holes for their lifetimes (mice live about two years).  The figure above is taken from the linked paper and shows healer and non-healer mice at the time of marking (the authors don’t say when, but typically you do this at about 3 weeks of age) and 30 days later.

Further investigation revealed that the MRL mice can regenerate almost all tissues except brain. This regenerative healing is fundamentally different from normal mammalian wound healing, and takes place without scar formation (which is of particular interest to cardiologists, since scars formed in response to heart injuries, including infarcts, are probably the primary cause of subsequent chronic heart disease and failure). Such healing is known in mammals, but only very early in development — interestingly, prior to the development of certain immune, especially inflammatory, responses.  Heber-Katz et al. report that T-cells from nonhealer mice do inhibit the ear wound closure response. It doesn’t seem, however, that their immune dysfunction is the only mediator of the regenerative response in MRL mice. For instance, matrix metalloproteases 2 and 9 and their specific inhibitors have been shown to be differentially activated in healer vs. non-healer mice (MMPs and MMP inhibitors are primary players in tissue remodelling, including wound healing). In fact, at least 20 genetic loci (chromosome regions) have been shown to be involved in the MRL regenerative phenotype. Importantly, many of these show no overlap with the loci mapped to the autoimmune disorder. (In very plain English: it is not likely that the primary cause of the regenerative capacity is also the cause of the immune disorder, although there may be some overlap; this means that we may be able to replicate the regenerative ability without causing immune dysfunction.)

It is also not clear exactly which cells are doing the healing. In bone marrow transplant/transfer experiments, healing in both heart and ear tissue followed the recipient not the donor phenotype, meaning that bone marrow derived stem cells are not likely to be driving the healing response (although some involvement of donor cells was observed). Moreover, in these model systems recipient hematopoiesis is destroyed by X-ray exposure, so the cells responsible for the healing must be resistant to such treatment. It’s also possible to reconstitute irradiated hematopoiesis using fetal liver cells, which contain a population of hematopoietic stem cells. Heber-Katz’ group has tried that too. The results were somewhat surprising: in the heart, healing followed the donor phenotype (i.e. the fetal liver cells transferred the regenerative capacity or lack thereof), whereas in ear injuries healing followed the recipient phenotype (as seen with bone marrow transplant/transfer). Once again, donor cells are seen in the healed heart but the mechanism of their involvment is not clear, nor is it clear why cardiac but not ear tissue could regenerate in this model.

Here’s the thing that jumped out at me: because non-healer liver cells transferred that phenotype, it appears that scarring inhibits regeneration in mammals. In the MRL animals, something is holding back the formation of scar tissue, and (therefore??) regeneration is taking place. In non-healer mice which received healer fetal liver cells, high degrees of chimerism (~60-80%) were seen, whereas non-healer into healer transfers showed an average of only 12% chimerism. Why was 12% non-healer enough to cause normal healing and scarring in that transfer, but 20-40% non-healer was not enough to stop MRL-type healing without scarring in the reciprocal model? The authors offer one clue: “We do not know which cell population is responsible for [scarring with only 12% chimerism] and it may be different than the population that allows for a regenerative response in the reciprocal chimeras.”

This much at least is already clear: the MRL mouse model will provide profound insights into mechanisms of wound healing (including opportunities for regenerative medicine) and the functions of hematopoietic stem cells.  Let me finish with a direct quote from Dr Heber-Katz, forecasting the future from late last year in New Scientist magazine:

I believe that the day is not far off when we will be able to prescribe drugs that cause severed spinal cords to heal, hearts to regenerate and lost limbs to regrow. People will come to expect that injured or diseased organs are meant to be repaired from within, in much the same way that we fix an appliance or automobile: by replacing the damaged part with a manufacturer-certified new part. Advances in heart regeneration are around the corner, digits will be regrown within five to ten years, and limb regeneration will occur a few years later. Central nervous system repair will occur first with the retina and optic nerve and later with the spinal cord. Within 50 years whole-body replacement will be routine.


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The Tories and Conservative Sex Appeal

Davidcameron_2Tony Blair says he is leaving before the summer is out, and the race for the Labour party leadership, and the assessment of the likely contenders in the next general election is already generating column inches. There’s every expectation of a bit of (all in good fun) back stabbing in the race for the Labour party leadership, but nobody seriously expects Gordon Brown to lose. What is much more fun is considering  how he will stand up to the Tories now that their new leader, David Cameron, is infusing the Tories with a fresh faced kind of posh boy sexiness (he took cocaine! he wears converse trainers! he listens to the Killers!). What is even more fun is considering how the female swing voters will choose between them.

It doesn’t surprise anyone that David Cameron is exciting more interest at this stage than the normally, intensely serious, and generally dour Mr Brown. None of the previous leaders of the Tories –  Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague – has excited this much hope of finally facing down New Labour. What is annoying, however, is the way the public, and specifically, women, are viewed as reacting to the new Tory leader. Recent polls show that David Cameron owes his lead in the polls mostly to women’s votes. But is this because we women like his policies? Because they are sick of the present administration’s conduct in Iraq? Because they would like a change after ten years of New Labour? Hell, no, it’s because we all have the hots for him!

The press in the Tory camp base their campaign on the premise that the female vote is always susceptible to a strong chin, and a full head of hair (read Bill Clinton). There are constant references to Mr Cameron’s looks, charm, and sexiness. We are told how he cooks, he cleans, and that even some of his best friends are women. All in all we are persuaded that David Cameron is new age, young, and passably handsome ergo we must fancy him. As long as he gives us a cheeky grin, and a bit of laddish humour, we’ll be gagging to stuff our votes into his ballot box. Enough of a twinkle in his politician’s eye, and a photo of him on the school run, and he can have us over a soapbox anyday.

It’s a bit worrying that female voting attitudes are still viewed as this simplistic. If it isn’t the “he’s so handsome” gag, it’s the old “he changes nappies!” routine. David Cameron is supposed to be winning hearts with his caring dad demeanour, and his tie less suit and white shirt combos. He woos us with his talk of the “family”, “work/life balance”, and “saving the planet for our kids”. We see photos of his youthful figure riding a bike to work, while in reality, his Lexus trails behind him carrying his shoes, papers, and a statelier change of clothes. He affixes solar panels to his roof, and talks of sharing childcare responsibilities. And with every pronouncement he affects a posh, but loveable Hugh Grant inspired charm calculated to win over the ladies. Does everyone really think we are that easily swayed?

Granted, men aren’t so likely to be patronised on this front due to the disproportionate number of successful female politicians on the scene. And perhaps the fact that – in the main – older women aren’t considered half as desirable as shiny young political interns. Nobody would have wanted to jump into bed with Maggie Thatcher unless they had fantasies of the whip and leather variety, and most men would have had to close their eyes and think of Mother India before Indira Gandhi would have got a look in. But although every Frenchman worth his salt maybe panting over pictures of Segolene Royal in that blue swimsuit, you are unlikely to hear of the male vote swinging Royal’s way because she is sexy. You’re much more likely to hear that she puts off less capable, more wrinkled, female voters due to sheer female jealousy. As a sex, we’re still considered capricious voters – but the spin doctors approach us on the basis that our emotions are predictable, and our interests defined by childcare, family life, and, at a push, the climate. All grassroots, smaller scale, and domestic (with a small “d”) interests.

I won’t pretend that politicians can’t be sexy. I’ll expose my deviant taste in men by admitting that I think Gordon Brown oddly sexy, with that dishevelled lock of hair hanging over his face. And I even quite like the way he quotes treasury statistics with a sort of smug post-coital smile. But, unlike Cameron, his behaviour is not premeditated to set female hearts aflutter, in fact it is hard to see anything approaching (at least talented) spin in his normally serious demeanour. If anything, women voters have labelled Gordon Brown as “trustworthy” – high praise from members of a normally distrustful electorate, and at least recognition of a proven track record.

But despite the fact that David Cameron’s policies are so far variable, and given his lack of experience, largely untested, the statistics appear to show that Cameron’s play for the female vote may be working. An unproven Tony Blair came into power in 1997 on a tide of women’s votes. That tide seems to be changing. A Guardian/ICM poll last summer reflected women’s discontent with Labour, and swing towards the Conservatives. The Tories were 1% behind men, but scored an 8% lead among women. In a November, a Times/Populus poll showed that while men would vote for Labour and the Conservatives in equal numbers, women gave Cameron 37% of their vote to 31% for Labour.

Viewed through the prism of gender politics, it is fairly clear that Labour comes out miles ahead. It has 95 women MPs, to the Tory’s 17. It has a female foreign secretary, and several female ministers. It has made unprecedented strides in anti discrimination laws, contributed record levels of spending on education, and health, provided all children of nursery school age with guaranteed and quality childcare, and raised the minimum wage – mainly affecting a badly paid part-time female workforce. There is little, apart from the spectre of Margaret Thatcher, the Tories can point to in terms of increasing women’s participation in the political process, or at least easing the burdens of a modern working woman’s life.

If anything surely this would force commentators to a different conclusion on the figures, rather than the effete observation that women must be attracted to Mr Cameron’s kindness to children and puppy dogs. Perhaps that women are not only concerned with “women’s issues”. That perhaps their concerns are much wider, and not just rooted in domestic homebound concerns. Also that, for example, women may have a greater aversion to war, a greater propensity to take risks, or the intelligence not to stick to lifelong party commitments, but to change with the times. Or maybe it’s just because they think David Cameron is a cutie. Go figure.